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Director Hong Khaou and actors Ben Whishaw, Peter Bowles, Morven Christie, Naomi Christie and Andrew Leung discuss Lilting, an intimate portrait of two strangers brought together by the common language of grief, at the BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival opening night gala.
[Clip of Lilting]
[speaking foreign language]
She asked what you're thinking.
I was just looking at her room. Kai described the room to me. I was just remembering what he said.
Is that Kai?
He was four or five years old. She thinks he looks really sweet.
This is for you. It's Kai's ashes.
You should have his ashes. I'm sorry that I fought over them with you.
[End of Clip]
Can we just talk about your cast, because they're quite an extraordinary lineup? You're a first-time feature director. How on earth did it happen? You made two shorts, which we presented in this festival. Where did you get such amazing talent from?
God, you know, I don't know. I wanted Ben, and we wanted Pei-Pei. We felt we had nothing to lose. The worst they could say was no. Kharmel was really fierce, and yeah, she passed it to his agent. I don't know. Well, I mean, I guess I've always... to be fair, I think in the film, I felt Richard was a character that took us into her world, and her world is very passive. I really wanted somebody that I felt had the kind of strength to do that. It's entirely Ben that takes us into her world. If you don't come from that culture, you need somebody that's really captivating to engage you there.
So we've got a lot of people on stage. We're going to try and get them all to speak. So could you each... maybe we'll start with Ben, since you're quite key.
You've been filming today. So we're a bit surprised...
Can we sit down? I feel a bit weird standing in this line.
Do you? You can sit here. You can sit here.
Is it stable?
Okay. I'll do that then.
I may stand, being slightly formal.
I'll stand. I'll stand. I'll stand.
No, no, no.
Oh, God. It's fine. I just feel more comfortable sitting.
So, could you just tell us something about your character and what attracted you to the script?
Well, I read the script when I was in Australia, in the summer of 2012, and I just remember that it really stayed with me. I didn't know who this person was who had sent it, and I think I knew nothing about anything about it. But I just thought it was incredibly sincere and moving, and it seemed to have its own... it was confident in itself and what it was, which I thought was unusual. So I felt immediately really, even before I met Hong, that it was something that I would really like to do. Then we met, and that was all lovely. What else happened?
Well, maybe we'll ask Peter then...
Yeah. It sort of just happened very quickly, didn't it?
Do you want to say something about your character?
Nothing like me. The joy for me on this film was working with Hong and meeting Ben, who I've admired for a number of years. Although, he didn't have much to do, we chatted quite a bit, which was a great joy for me.
In the terms of the acting, working with Pei-Pei, who I actually did fall in love with, she's the most wonderful person and wonderful actress. The film was a joy. It was shot very, very quickly. I think I was only on it for about three days, but the atmosphere, the enthusiasm in the rooms that we worked in was inspiring. You see, when you get a really, really good script, it excites everybody, you know. And every single person in that room was excited, and I was there as well. I was very grateful. Thank you.
So maybe, Morven, do you want to just tell us something about your character? You weren't there for a huge amount of time...
...but you made an impression.
I think I only did... I mean, if Peter's saying he did three days on set, that's definitely not true. I think I did six days or something like that. It was shot in 5 minutes for £1.20. I guess the thing is that, for me, wanting to be involved in the film was less to do with the role itself and just more to do with the script and more to do with Hong.
Kharmel, the Casting Director, when I was offered it and she sent things, she sent the script, and she sent a director's statement that Hong had written. It was really short, just a page or something. But I knew within just a couple sentences of reading that, that I wanted to be part of it, just because I think that there are a very limited number of people who are truly writing from a really personal place within themselves. It takes a lot of courage. Those are the kind of people that I want to work with. Those are the kind of experiences that I want to have as an actor. Those are the kind of directors and writers that I want to serve.
So that's what it was for me, and it was joyful. Given all the time pressures and the financial pressures, the amount of passion that was in the room, I think, was testament to the script and to Hong.
Indeed. And you're not related, but you're also called Christie. This is Naomi Christie. Can you just tell us about your character, and then what the experience was like working with this talented cast?
I think, like Morven, these scripts, I felt when I first read it, that I could really relate to. I didn't actually think I would ever get the part... So I remember turning up to the audition just rushing. I was late, with a big suitcase. I'd just come back from Manchester, and I was thinking, "This is just going to be the worst day."
But Hong, it was amazing working with Hong and the rest of the cast. I'd never done anything on screen before. So they really... yeah.
So, Andrew, you've got your own mic.
Oh, yes, I do.
So you are the centre of the film really. You're the absent but always present Kai. How was it for you?
Well, yeah, I guess...
Maybe speak a little closer to the microphone.
I think, yeah, it's very haunting, the whole piece when I read it. I think Kai, as a character, he had a big impact. Very kind, very sort of soft, like a soft power he had over people. Very loving, he was a very loving character. Yeah, just like... that's come from Hong's spirit. Yeah, his relationship with his mum and the responsibilities that he had to take on and the pressure that he's under to come out to her and the guilt that he carries in putting her in a home. He's under a lot of pressure.
When he passes away, I guess all of that pressure is kind of passed on to Richard, which is very tough. Yeah, it was... yeah, when I read that it was... yeah, I found it very haunting and very delicate, the way that Hong dealt with it and the fact that it covers like sort of cross cultures. Yeah.
Hong, has your mother seen the film?
No, she hasn't. Only because we couldn't afford to subtitle it into Chinese for her. She doesn't speak English.
So there's a little bit of autobiography...
She knows about it.
She does know about it. It's not that you're hiding it from her. I think it's just interesting that there's just a little bit of autobiography.
She's sitting there.
What? No. No. No.
Hi, mom. Well, she'll see this on BFI Live tomorrow.
When did the structure come to you?
The structure was always there in the script, in the way you move between the past and the present and to be fluid about it. That also came from a film I saw. I don't know. When I was writing it, there was a film that stayed with me all the time. It was a John Sayles' film called Lone Star. He did very similar things, and he used shadows instead. I thought it'd be quite interesting if you have them change their clothes behind the camera and reappear in a different timeline.
What was it like to work with Pei-Pei Cheng?
She was incredible to work with. On a set, she was always on set. You couldn't move her. Even in really stressful time, when we're moving the lights and it was really dangerous, she just constantly wanted to sit on set all the time. The crew really fell in love with her. She kind of became a mother to them. It sounds like a cliché, but she really became kind of a grandmother to them.
How personal is the story?
I mean, it does come from a very personal place in that I think the premise of it is very personal, which is that my mum is like that in the sense that she doesn't speak English. But, you know, you take that idea, and you have to kind of plot it. You have to dramatize it, and you have to really re-imagine certain things. The grief, that came from a personal place as well I guess. Yeah, I think it is personal. But at the same time, that's not my life, so to speak.
How did you decide on the music?
It's odd, actually. Before we shot it, I didn't think there would be that much music. It was in the editing that we decided that we needed... and I didn't want too much music, because I think the story is very emotive already. So we decided to go with very sparse style of music, and sometimes I think it's just really ethereal, textural stuff really, more than traditional composed music.
So the film is out under Artificial Eye's banner in the summer. That kind of means June, I think. So tell all your friends. It's a film that will benefit enormously from word of mouth. We're very excited to have it in the festival, and thank the entire cast and Hong Khaou for bringing it to us. Thank you very much.
Born: 1980, Clifton, Beds.
More about Ben Whishaw
Born: 16th October 1936, London
The Assassination Bureau Limited
More about Peter Bowles
More about Hong Khaou
Ben Whishaw, Cheng Pei Pei, Andrew Leung
More about Lilting
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